Cheese Appreciation 101

The most important step is tasting.

That’s how you learn
“The point always is to get them to try something new and different. Chances are, they will like it”

Learning about cheese is within easy reach of anyone who has a sense of adventure and access to a good cheese store. Here are some tips to jump-start the journey.

Gordon Edgar purchases more than a million pounds of cheese a year, has crisscrossed the country in its pursuit and written a book about his career path from punk-scene player to cheese monger. With the best of them, he can reel off names of obscure cheeses, describe with exquisite detail their nuances and offer firsthand knowledge about the people who, as if by magic, transform milk into cheese.

But here’s a little secret: Edgar, author of “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge,” cut his cheese teeth on bright orange blocks of Velveeta, proof positive that a) in at least one respect, he’s on equal footing with most Americans and b) there’s ample room and opportunity for anyone to advance their cheese adventures.

The cheese buyer for a food cooperative in San Francisco for more than 15 years, Edgar long ago bid adieu to his mass-produced-cheese beginnings.   A purist of sorts (one gets the sense that he would eat a maggot-infested farmstead cheese before he would a processed cheese-food spread), he happily shares both the knowledge and opinions built through years of tasting, buying and exploring. He finds immense pleasure in such far-flung treasures as French Ossau-Iraty, Italian Taleggio and Swiss Emmenthal yet doesn’t pass judgment on customers who buy the exact same cheese every time. “Good for them,” he says. “They know what they like.” Even Edgar admits to an enduring, lowbrow affection for the simple pleasures of block Cheddar and nearly always has some stashed in the refrigerator.  

Traveling the Cheese Course

Expanding one’s personal cheese repertoire is an ongoing evolution, a path of informal—and immensely enjoyable-- study that includes tasting and experimenting, pushing forward from the basics and discovering the many flavor and textural treats that exist within the and vast, ever-changing cheese universe. Aided by curiosity and abetted by a good cheese department, Edgar says it is simple to move from one level to the next. 

“The most important step is tasting. That’s how you learn,” he says. “Ask to sample a few different types at the market. Try something new and different and be open to suggestions.”

It helps to visit markets that will shave off a piece to sample. High-noon on Saturday may not be the best time but during slower hours, staffers generally are more than willing to offer guided tours through the cheese case. Edgar also says farmers markets are great places to learn about cheese. “Many small cheese makers sell this way. You can learn so much for them,” he notes, adding that they encourage tastings and are well-equipped to discuss their cheeses’ unique traits. They also can liken their own cheese varieties to more-familiar styles, sharpening the sensory focus.

 Honesty and a few well-chosen cues will help unearth cheeses that aren’t so bold as to be scary but that will introduce cheeses that are distinct and different. “When someone asks you what you like, tell them the cheese types and the traits that work for you,” coaches Edgar. “Be prepared to tell them if you want something sharper, creamier, pungent, strong or more challenging. And tell them what you don’t like—blue cheese, runny cheese, goat’s milk, ultra-fatty. They’ll guide you in the right direction.”

Gateway to Success

Assembling a simple cheese tray is the reason many patrons head to the cheese counter. Edgar offers easy guidelines that bring interest to the selections without them being intimidating. “Before you start selecting cheeses, ask yourself what the real goal is. A crowd-pleasing experience will be different from an impress-your-foodie-friends event,” Edgar notes.

With the end goal in mind, strive for variation in milks and textures, building around three core choices. “Start with a “gateway” cheese, something that gets them excited without having them recoil in fear,” he says. The selection depends on where you and your guests stand in the cheese world; if your most exotic cheese experience so far has been Monterey Jack, consider moving first to a well-made Teleme and from there perhaps a bigger leap to Epossies. 

Edgar next recommends a rustic sheep’s milk cheese. “They are often mild with a creamy texture; those traits appeal to a lot of people.” Spanish Manchego is one possibility. Ossau-Iraty, which Edgar says is a perennial best seller at his shop, is another consideration. Made in the French Pyrenees Mountains, it has a buttery rich texture and richly nuanced flavor that pairs well with many white wines.

Believing that their olfactory bark usually is worse than their bite, Edgar urges customers to add a “stinky” washed-rind cheese to the mix. “Something that has a strong stink but is still fairly mild in taste will do wonders for them,” Edgar insists, adding that Taleggio almost always wins fans once they discover that the flavor is more elegant than its nose suggests.

“The point always is to get them to try something new and different. Chances are, they will like it,” Edgar says. “Then they can move on to the next cheese experience.”

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